Saturday, September 03, 2005

'Going ethnic' or eating Estonian: Altja tavern

Remember the unexpected pile of chantarelle mushrooms I came across when daytripping in Lahemaa, Estonia? Well, here are some pictures of the lazy lunch we enjoyed on that day. Which was the reason why I was about to miss a lovely mushroom dinner that night, had we not come across that lovely mushroom lady..

We had driven about 100 km out of town towards St Petersburgh, to Lahemaa. After catching up with my friend Edith and her lovely daughter Liisu (usually residents of Edinburgh, but spending the summer in most idyllic settings of Northern Estonia) in Võsu and spending some time on the beach, we headed for some lunch at Altja kõrts or Altja tavern. This is a traditional Estonian tavern house that has acted as a national restaurant for quite a few years already. It features in the news regularly as various visiting dignitaries (anyone from the President of Germany to the Queen of Denmark) are brought here, and it is also the place where busloads of tourists get their crash course into Estonian cuisine. We arrived just when two buses left with German tourists - the latter apparently provide 80% of the business!

Maybe living abroad makes me more nostalgic, or maybe the food was extremely nice on its own right, but I had a thoroughly enjoyable meal. It was a beautiful and sunny day, and we took our lunch outside:

For starters, we shared a plate of blood chips. Yep, you read it correctly. There isn't a single Christmas meal in Estonia that wouldn't feature blood sausages (verivorst) or black pudding, as it is known in politically correct English. Although you can buy blood sausages throughout the year, the preferred alternative during summer months is blood pudding (verikäkk) - slightly firmer in consistency and thicker in diametre. Traditionally it is fried in thick slices and eaten with a sour cream sauce. In Altja, however, they served delicious paperthin slices with a sour cream dip - kind of modern take on an old classic:

Extremely tasty. I later found the recipe for veritsipsid or blood chips in a new Estonian national cookbook published last year. And I have a whole black pudding in my Edinburgh fridge waiting to be baked into thin chips in my oven:)

Veritsipside retsept

For the main course, we all opted for mulgipuder, which is a traditional dish of mashed potatoes cooked with some pearl barley from Mulgimaa in South-Western Estonia. Mine came with a wild mushroom sauce:

The others opted for mulgipuder with fried baltic herring (praetud räimed).

I was a bit reluctant to order the fried fish myself, as I was sure that I'd be forking out fishbones from between my teeth. But I shouldn't have - the mouthful (alright, actually the many mouthfuls) I nicked from my Mum's plate were absolutely delicious - thick well-seasoned fish fillets.

Note that all plates come garnished with pickled beetroot and salted cucumbers. I said it's very popular back in Estonia!

Even the children's options were above the ususal mash-and-sausages habit:

They did get mash, granted, but it was accompanied by tasty olive & grated carrots meatballs. And none of the picky eaters said a word, as they were happily munching their way through the plate!

To wash it all down - some home-made root beer (kali) for the adults and plum (not prune!) juice for the kids.

After the meal we spent another half an hour enjoying the sun and looking at the kids (see my sis?:) climbing the old carriage and flying back and forth on the swing.

And for the dessert? Well, that involves another beautiful manor house in Lahemaa and comes as a totally different story:)

Altja kõrts
Altja küla
Vihula vald
45501 Lääne-Virumaa
Summer opening hours: daily from 11am until 11pm (1 May-30 Sep)
Winter opening hours: Mon/Tue/Wed/Thu/Sun 11am-8pm, Fri/Sat 11am-9pm (1 Oct-30 Apr)


Anonymous said...

Oh! I am loving your Estonian stories...I keep coming back for more, and I can't wait to hear the next one...wish I could try some of the Estonian food!

BTW, I have tried the spanish blood sausage, morcilla, and I absolutely love it! :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Pille, just as Joey has already stated - I do love your stories ! And coming home and eating something "nostalgic" always is something wonderful to experience !
Have a nice weekend ! (If you have a little time, my own foodie childhood memories are online now...) Best, angelika

Joycelyn said...

hi pille, your estonian posts are always so exquisitely eloquent...btw, am a huge fan of blood pudding and blood sausages - especially enjoy them thinly sliced and fried till nicely caramelised...reading this story has made me very hungry!

Spinning Girl said...

magusad toidud
magusad pildid
magusad musid

Anonymous said...

What a lovely comfortable blog you have! Memories of the groaning tables at Altja (which we visited back in 1996 when we were in Estonia as tourists); and of that heavenly dish, mulgipuder which the housekeeper cooked for me whenever I need a bit of comfort food. Happy memories!

Pille said...

Joey, Angelika and J - I'm glad you like my Estonian stories and keep coming back for more. I promise to try to blog about something Estonian every now and then - and maybe more frequently than I have until now.

Joey - I did have some tasty morcilla tapas in Barcelona last August - they were much more soften in consistency than I'm used to, bordering on the creamy. I have also tried some Scottish black puddings, but only one of them was nice and unfortunately that's not available in Edinburgh.

Angelika - enjoyed reading about your food memories - and semolina porridge featured highly in my 1970s and 1980s childhood as well - we call it 'manna'.

J - wanna come and have some of the fried & caramelised black pudding slices I have in my fridge just now??

Spinning Girl - thanks:) Have you been to Estonia yourself?

Sarah - come and check out the blog again some time - I will surely post a 'recipe' for mulgipuder soon! Then you can recreate it even when not in Eesti any more:)

Anonymous said...

Add me to the list of enjoying your "Estonian" stories.

Blood chips? Black pudding? All very interesting.

It's nice that you had a good time and a good meal with your family.


Pille said...

Paz - you're officially added to the list of people who enjoy my Estonian stories now:) Thanks for joining:)

Anonymous said...

My pleasure! Thank you!


Anonymous said...

hi there! i just found your blog a few weeks back and loooove your writing. i'm also living in edinburgh (but i'm an australian) and i went to estonia for a holiday this time last year. i ate at the same place you wrote about today, it was delicious. we even played on that swing! we also went to that manor house. it was an absolutely beautiful part of the world, so it's great to hear your take on it :)

Pille said...

Hi Shauna - so nice to hear that a fellow Edinburgh resident has been to Estonia and eaten in the very place I've written about!!! Also very happy to hear that you liked the country. I have a friend in Melbourne who has been to Estonia twice over the years already and I know another Aussie who has settled there (the latter for romantic reasons, granted) - maybe there's something appealing to Australians:) Did you go to any of the cafes I've mentioned? Or restaurants? Whenever I'm at home, I try to pay a visit to the Russian place Troika, have some pakoras at Elevant and eat some mushroom soup at the medieval restaurant Olde Hansa - unfortunately only managed to visit the first one this time, so will have to wait until after Xmas before writing about medieval eating:)
Thanks for your kind words! And let me know if you fancy a drink in Edinburgh sometimes!

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you'll find this comment on a page this old, but I was amused to find your post, with veritsipsid in it as that's what I made today (albeit out of Finnish mustamakkara) and they were good! Blogged about them in my own blog (and there's a pic, so you can see just how much smaller they are than ones made out of verikäkk :D).
Wonderful blog you have; makes me want to jump the Gulf of Finland and come for a visit again, as it's been way too long since I've been in Estonia. :D